by Anna Elliott
Book One in the ‘Twilight of Avalon’ Trilogy
As far as Arthurian legends go, the tale of Trystan and Isolde is quite popular, although not quite as well known as tales of the Knights of the Round Table or the doomed romance of Guinevere and Lancelot. In this latest retelling of the story, Anna Elliott uses one of the earliest records of Trystan and Isolde as her inspiration, with the backbone of the story taken from the writings by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain. Set seven years after the death of King Arthur, Isolde is the newly widowed High Queen of Britain. Daughter of Modred, granddaughter of Morgan, Isolde is believed to be a witch by many of her subjects, and now that she has lost the protection of her husband there are many who wish to see her removed from power. When the machinations of Lord Marche, the new High King, force Isolde to flee court, she joins a ragtag bunch of soldiers-for-hire led by Trystan, a former prisoner of the High King. As Isolde learns more of Marche’s plans to betray his fellow Britons, she knows that she must return to the castle and confront him, even though it will mean almost certain death.
I have a passing familiarity with the story of Trystan and Isolde, mostly through the Wagner opera. It’s pretty different! Unlike the opera, which is all about an epic, all-consuming romance, the love between Trystan and Isolde has barely sparked. I assume that most of that is being saved for future volumes, but I was still quite surprised that there wasn’t more passion between the two characters. It’s what they’re known for, after all!
Set in roughly the sixth century, Britain is teetering between the old gods of Myrddin (Merlin) and Morgan and the relatively new religion of Christianity. Most of the characters had very syncretic beliefs, which seems more realistic than the strictly Christian vs. Pagan dichotomy I often come across in books set in this time period.
In this story, Britain is not a golden country on the rise to glory, but rather a declining state with no strong national identity. Everything is uncertain and fading, which creates an aura of sadness and quiet desperation that permeates the book. Since (spoiler?) the story of Trystan and Isolde leads to a tragic end, it suits the narrative very well. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, although the ending is completely unsatisfying because it cuts off very suddenly. I guess that just makes me want the next volume in the series all the more!
3.5 out of 5 stars
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